NYLAG Advocacy Protects Social Security Benefits of Holocaust Survivors

Earlier this year, through its work in assisting Holocaust survivors, NYLAG began to see a troubling pattern of erroneous reductions in Social Security Title II Retirement Insurance Benefits (RIB) received by poor and elderly Holocaust survivors.

NYLAG attorneys in the Holocaust Compensation Assistance Project and Evelyn Frank Legal Resources Program were in a unique position to identify the problem. They have assisted thousands of victims of Nazi persecution in securing restitution from Germany and other countries, and also work to ensure that recipients of Holocaust restitution are protected under the 1994 Victims of Nazi Persecution Act. The federal law provides that Holocaust restitution payments shall be disregarded in determining financial eligibility when victims of Nazi persecution apply for Social Security Insurance (SSI) and other federally-funded benefits that are based on financial need. NYLAG is a national expert in this area, and has developed numerous resources that educate survivors, their families and professionals, as well as state and local government officials about this important law.

Through extensive research, NYLAG learned that the reductions in its clients’ benefits resulted from misapplication of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), a provision of the Social Security law that reduces the amount of Social Security Retirement Insurance benefits for beneficiaries who have also earned a retirement pension from a foreign government. It is meant to ensure that workers don’t receive a “windfall” if much of their past work was performed in another country. The WEP reductions cannot be based on work performed before 1957. Nevertheless, many Holocaust survivors who receive German social insurance benefits based on work credits earned in Germany before or during World War II – which of course were all earned before 1957 — have suffered a sharp reduction in their Social Security benefits.

After months of appeals and contact with regional Social Security offices, NYLAG was able to reinstate the correct benefits for its clients, including those referred to NYLAG from out of state by lawyers not familiar with this unusual and arcane issue. But the underlying problem remained, causing unnecessary hardship for clients, creating an administrative burden for everyone, and raising an almost insurmountable obstacle for the many survivors who do not have access to legal counsel. And there is one more pressing concern. Due to recent changes in German law, beginning now and going forward, thousands of older Title II RIB beneficiaries will newly receive a German pension – making them vulnerable to the same erroneous reductions in their Social Security benefits.

The need for action was acute. In a letter dated September 18, NYLAG alerted the SSA to the mistaken reductions, and recommended changes in the nationwide policy and procedures manual used by Social Security offices to ensure that WEP reductions are not imposed on Nazi victims. On October 9, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Carolyn W. Colvin, agreed to revise nationwide procedures affecting thousands of victims of Nazi persecution who rely on Social Security benefits.

“Many of the Holocaust survivors we assist are poor or living on severely limited resources. When their benefits are mistakenly reduced – or suspended altogether – the impact on their lives can devastating. By agreeing to revise its procedures, the Social Security Administration has committed to protecting their rights,” said Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG President and Attorney-in-Charge. “We thank the Commissioner, and applaud the commitment of the Obama Administration, which also appointed the first Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services, Aviva Sufian, who we also thank for her passionate efforts to protect the rights of these most vulnerable Americans.”